Sole-searching on the weird wide web

There are many waymarkers along the winding trail of a man's life, but few can be quite so dismal, so minatory, so like unto a psychic gibbet from which a rotting corpse twists in the mephitic breezes from the nearby abyss as logging on to the Clarks website to look for a comfortable pair of walking shoes. "How did it come to this?"

I asked myself as I examined critically the Storm Walls, the Rangle Mixes and the Fall Proofs (need I mention that each of these shoe models is also appended "GTX"? How ineffably sad is that? It's as if middle-aged men were boy-racing towards the grave in sensible footwear) before settling on a pair of the hideously named but achingly suitable Rockie Los (GTX).

I - I! - who for years had near furled my feet in order to feed them into suede winkle-pickers; I - I! - who had once fallen asleep in an overheated Vienna hotel room wearing patent leather Chelsea boots of such exemplary snugness that when I awoke I'd contracted a vicious fungal infection that tormented me for the next decade. I! - well, you get the point: I used to be a hipster, but now I can see the hip-replacement approaching at a brisk limp.

Trouble afoot

But before I clicked the "Add to Order" button I did something still sadder than buying a pair of Clarks shoes: I read the reviews that other Rockie Lo purchasers had posted on the site. Who does such a thing? Who has either the time or the inclination to write a shoe review? Is there some lost cohort of the Trollopian clerisy, who spend the mildewed years of their reclusion tapping out these clap-happy analyses: "Probably the most comfortable pair of shoes I have ever had, well made and keep your feet dry in very wet conditions. I wear them for work and needed smart and durable shoes, they fully meet my requirements. Highly recommended"? Or so contended Stephen from Barrow-in-Furness, who I pictured wearing a mildewed cassock as he crouched over his laptop.

Still more deranging was the small button at the foot of this screed labelled "Inappropriate? - Report this". I mean, to write a shoe review at all is perverse, but to write an inappropriate shoe review, that way madness lies - and besides, what could such a thing be like? "Your Malone Class grey leather shoe is almost unspeakably arousing . . . No sooner had I opened the box and seen my new pair lying there, soixante-neuf, tongue to upper, than I reached for the tube of lube and eased my trousers off my potbelly . . ." Or possibly: "Your Talon Mid men's sport boots are a must for any fedayee who seriously wishes to take the jihad to the infidel, the heels are large enough to conceal several ounces of Semtex or other explosives, while the Velcro fastening means that the shoes can be speedily removed in the event of an abortive mission . . ."

Keyboard worrier

I wondered quite how vigilant the webmasters at Clarks were; how long could I get away with posting inappropriate shoe reviews before the cyber-police arrived and hauled me a way like some still weirder version of Julian Assange? I idly considered marking out a portion of each day to doing just this - and why stop at inappropriate shoe reviews? I could also comment outrageously on oven gloves, children's toys, medical supplies; anything, indeed, that caught my fancy. But then it occurred to me: there's a big crowd of nutters who are doing just that.

While the abuses, bullying and all-round lunacy of social networking are well attested to, to my mind the more homely realm of shoe reviewing is just as bonkers. In the sphere of political comment, the web replaces the nuanced analyses of those who have thought long and hard with the jaundiced ejaculations of saloon-bar bores who don't even have the balls to show their face.

In the world of books, the typographic bile of illiterates who've yet to learn to spell or punctuate achieves equal billing with the opinions of William Empson. Just as with the madness of calling the PM "Dave", so the posting of comments on the web represents a reaction against the loathed "cult of the professional", setting up in its stead an equally deranged "cult of the amateur".

So, I took Stephen of Barrow's comments with a pinch of salt and hied me to my nearest branch of Clarks, where I was ably assisted by that professional anachronism: a salesman. Rockie on. l

Will Self's next column runs in the 10 January issue of the NS

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.